I recently ran into an old friend of mine, a successful Japanese businessman, who introduced me to an attractive lady he was working with and from his body language whom he was obviously comfortable with. He introduced her as the CEO of one of his group companies and I couldn't help wondering how that relationship got started. In any case, she in turn introduced herself, giving her name, then shyly nodded towards my friend and said, "By the way, I'm his wife."
"So that was it," I thought. I have to admit that I was surprised, because they were using different names. I hadn't known that this well-known business was a family concern and probably most of their clients don't either. After chatting for a while, I found out she is a super-mom/businesswoman and has two small children as well as holding down the CEO-ship of the group firm. We bid our farewells and I started thinking on the way back on the train about how my friend had obviously created a great working relationship with his wife, and furthermore, how they had been (somewhat) keeping it a secret.
Indeed, the whole episode reminded me very much of my own experience when I first started a company with my first wife (I'm happily married a second time, now) back in the early 1980's. Back then, and even now it seems, working with your wife was not considered very professional. No one comes right out and says it, but you can feel the tension or disapproval when you talk to banks, larger client firms, or professional groups and tell them that you work with your wife. Indeed, over the 4-5 years we worked together, the general attitude I encountered was that if you have to pull your wife into your company, then you're either foolish, weak (if you're male), or have no ambition to grow the business beyond a family tax shelter.
Indeed, this last point is well reinforced by the fact that in many smaller husband-and-wife ventures, the wife really does control the books by being the company's accountant or bookkeeper.
My ex-wife certainly knew the score and when we started the company, called LINC Japan, in 1984, she told me that we should keep our marriage a secret. To the outside world we were to be known as Mr. Lloyd and Ms. "K". Now, maybe she had other reasons, but in any case we had separate meishi made, and pretended for some years to not be related whenever it came to doing business. It wasn't until she had our first child and it became pretty obvious that we then spilled the beans to our clients. By this time we also had a 10-person business and some excellent client relationships, so no one was too shocked and life went on.
I have on occasion also met couples in larger Japanese companies who are married and have managed to keep it secret (from the bosses at least). The first time I came across this, I was flabbergasted, but it seemed that their co-workers didn't mind so long as they kept their distance at work and didn't bring domestic problems to the office. I imagine that things could get very sticky if one of the pair wound up being the boss for the other, but in a larger firm, this seems to be easier to avoid.
Of course it goes without saying that the tradition in Japanese firms is that it is OK for couples to meet and start dating within the office, but one or the other, usually the woman, is expected to leave the company once they get married.
Another interesting issue is that in Japan, married couples are supposed to use a single surname. This law may change in the future, but right now it's still in force. So how is it that couples working in the same company can have different names? The answer to this is that unless you're using the surname for something legally binding, no one really seems to care. "OK," you might say, "Sending in a resume with your maiden name rather than your married one is misrepresentation," but I've found that in practice so long as couples who want to keep using separate names inform the recruiter or their immediate boss of the situation, that seems to be the end of it. So long as a person is doing a good job, employers don't really seem to mind if they are using an alias.
Perhaps this open-mindedness comes from tradition, where those Japanese who were actually allowed to have a family name (samurai, wealthy merchants, artists, etc.) prior to the Meiji restoration would sometimes change their names 3-4 times in their lifetimes. It wasn't seen as a big deal then and it isn't now.